Argentina's class of '78 deserve respect
It is now 34 years ago, but the controversy over the Argentina-Peru match in the 1978 World Cup does not want to lie down and die.
Hosts Argentina, needing at least a four-goal margin to reach the final, won 6-0 and then went on to beat the Netherlands and claim their first title.
Last week, veteran Peruvian politician Genaro Ledesma added fuel to the fire. A prisoner of Peru's military government at the time, he claims Argentina's military dictatorship agreed to take custody of him and other dissidents in return for Peru throwing the match.
There has always been talk of Peruvian collusion, with conspiracy theories involving shipments of grain from Argentina. Is there fire behind the smoke? It can hardly be ruled out. Little in the way of ethics could be expected of an Argentine dictatorship that was busy murdering thousands of its own citizens.
And then there is the fact that Peru had nothing to play for. Disastrous organisation meant that they had already effectively been eliminated, while Argentina knew exactly what they needed to do to reach the final - hardly the recipe for an honest contest.
But, purely in footballing terms, to ascribe the 1978 win entirely to skulduggery is surely to miss the point - because 1978 clearly represents a before-and-after moment for the Argentine national team.
After a golden age in the 1940s, Argentine football suffered badly from a self-imposed isolation in the following decade. By the time they returned to the World Cup in 1958, they were well off the pace. Poor again in 1962, they had a good team four years later, but failed to qualify for 1970 and were taken apart by the Dutch in 1974.
Since '78 it has been a different story. There have been disappointments, such as the 2002 World Cup. And there have been disastrous games, like the thrashing administered by Germany two years ago. But since 1978 they have also been a feared force, a national team with a secure place at football's top table. And that is not an achievement that can be attributed to the military dictatorship.
It has much more to do with a high-profile opponent of the regime, Cesar Luis Menotti, who coached the team to the 1978 triumph. Appointed after the '74 World Cup, Menotti kept his job even after the military coup of 1976 - one of the dictatorship's brighter decisions.
Menotti introduced two fundamental concepts. One was the idea of a genuinely national team, without the traditional domination of Buenos Aires. He scoured the provinces looking for players to feed into the process.
The other was a way of playing. It was not only Argentina the Dutch had humiliated in 1974. It was also Brazil and Uruguay. The high intensity football of the Dutch appeared to have rendered South American football obsolete. Brazil even confessed as much, attempting to copy the Dutch model in 1978.
Menotti, meanwhile, preached that traditional Argentine passing football could compete with the northern Europeans. But they had to up the rhythm of their play -
hence the importance of Osvaldo Ardiles to the team.
Ardiles was far from the peoples' choice to play in midfield. JJ Lopez was much more popular - he was an idol with Buenos Aires giants River Plate, while Ardiles, originally from Cordoba, was with the smaller Huracan club. Even Ardiles would probably have chosen Lopez over himself.
But Menotti went with Ardiles precisely because he offered more dynamism. His fetching, carrying and continuous quick passing set the pace at which the coach wanted the team to play.
Without home advantage, it is indeed possible that Ardiles and company might not have won that World Cup. But the suspicion that the military government might have pulled some strings in their favour does not detract from their virtues as a team. After all, Holland certainly did not throw the final in 1978.
The England World Cup-winning side of 1966 have also suffered from a lack of international credibility. In their case, it is argued that the English president of Fifa, Sir Stanley Rous, went out of his way to ensure a home victory, conspiracy theorists pointing above all to the famously controversial third goal in the final.
The "did it really cross the line?" debate is certainly valid. But the focus on this one incident overlooks the team's tactical virtues.
Brazil had gone with a back four in the previous decade, and discovered that if wingers were retained in that formation the team could be left light in midfield. The solution was for Mario Zagallo to shuttle back from the left wing and make the extra man, a role he played in 1958 and, to even greater effect, in 1962.
Four years later Alf Ramsey's England effectively had a Zagallo on either flank. Both Alan Ball and Martin Peters could set up goals like wingers. But they also got behind the ball when the team lost possession - defensive cover that left the side's most talented player, Bobby Charlton, free to attack.
Some 46 years later the 4-4-2 that England played continues to be the framework for many teams.
Could that England team have won the World Cup without home advantage? Maybe not, though the players argue they were at their best in away games, when they had more opportunity to launch the counter-attack.
Subsequent events also back them up. England's 1-0 defeat by Brazil in the 1970 World Cup was much more than a mere group game.
On the one hand it was a test of England's credibility away from Wembley - the game took place in the scalding midday heat of Guadalajara - and on the other it was of key importance in the context of the tournament. The winner of the group would have an easier ride to the final.
It produced a classic, one of the all-time great World Cup games. Although England lost, they could certainly have won, a point stressed to me by Zagallo, then Brazil's coach, and by a number of his players. Indeed, the Brazilians see this as the key game on their way to winning the tournament.
Even in defeat, England had won respect. They had shown that, irrespective of any real or imagined behind-the-scenes machinations, they were a team worthy of its place in football history.
The Argentina side of 1978 deserves that same respect.
Questions on South American football can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. From last week's postbag:
Q) How come the Boca Juniors sides of 2000-2003 aren't considered to be in the pantheon of all-time greatest teams?
A) I think you've partly answered your own question when you write "sides" in the plural. If it had been one continuous team that had won the Libertadores titles of 2000, 20001 and 2003, then I certainly think they would be worthy of consideration for the pantheon. But effectively we are talking about two different teams.
The 2000-01 side was built around a spine of keeper Cordoba, centre-back Bermudez, playmaker Riquelme and centre-forward Palermo - all of whom had gone by 2003, when the title owed a lot to the explosion on to the scene of Carlos Tevez. There is not enough continuity between the two for it to be seen as part of the same evolutionary process.